This is the tale of a set of keys that nearly was lost, but wasn't, and a second slice of cake that almost wasn't devoured, but was. It involves a spur-of-the-moment shower in a bathroom not my own, a bathtub-loving cat who tried to stall the operation, a vintage gold watch that may or may not have been broken, and the kind of giddiness and pride that only the assemblage of a four-layer strawberry cream cake can inspire.
Our story begins several weeks ago, when a certain soon-to-be 26-year-old shyly placed his order for a certain very special birthday cake. The birthday boy was none other than my friend Eitan, he who occasionally wields imaginary pistols and shoots them off Wild West style at the dinner table, who, in the eighth grade, composed a heart-rending (and rhyme-tastic) song chronicling the sorry fate of "a baker who lived in a village, who went by the name of Mr. Concillage," he who repeatedly insists, "you really don't need to bake me a birthday cake," but with a hopeful smile and a mischievous gleam in his eye adds, "but if you do, can it have whipped cream?" and with that seals the deal.
It took some prodding, dear readers, but soon Eitan's request was on the table: something cold, moist, and custardy, with a generous helping of strawberries. Eitan, his wife, Julia, Eli, and I were in the midst of an after-dinner flop on our green sofas. Our bellies were full, but our brains soldiered on to consider just what this luscious-sounding cake might look like. The word "trifle" was tossed around, fingers were pointed at the strawberry-crowned cover of April's Gourmet magazine, and soon even Julia had come to terms with the idea of a dream birthday cake conspicuously lacking in chocolate.
After more Google searching than I'd like to admit, and a careful patching together of several promising recipes, I had my game plan. On Thursday night, I prepared the custard, and on Friday morning, I baked and split the cake layers, macerated the strawberries, whipped the cream and, hands literally atremble with excitement, put the whole, whopping thing together.
So far, so good.
Eli left work early so that he could assemble his contribution to the birthday dinner, something specially suited to Eitan's penchant for Mexican cuisine: a saucy, steaming bed of bean and cheese enchiladas. The thought of making our way over to Eitan and Julia's with both the enchiladas and a towering four-layer cake in tow tortured me with waking nightmares of a whipped cream and bean-spattered sidewalk. But never fear, we had a plan: Eli would prepare the filling and the sauce for his enchiladas and then drive me over to Eitan and Julia's with the cake securely resting on my lap. Then, we would turn around, Eli would bake his enchiladas, and we would head back out, right on schedule.
Given the fact that the cake had not even threatened to crumble or tear when I delicately split two layers into four, and that our punctiliously timed baking, cooking, and delivering schedule had, thus far, gone off without a hitch, something was bound to go wrong. It was only fair.
When Eitan saw the cake, his eyes grew gratifyingly wide. Julia made room in the fridge while Eli and Eitan slid the four-layered beast from the wax paper-lined baking sheet to a glass pedestal. (I only shrieked a little during the perilous transfer. I am very brave.) Eitan ran for his camera, and after a brief photo shoot, Eli and I were back on the road. We jumped from the car, and then it hit us:
Eli: Do you have the keys?
Jess: No, you have the keys.
Eli: No, I don't.
Jess: Yes, you do. I was holding the cake, you grabbed the keys, locked the front door, and stuffed them into your pocket.
Just how it came to be that our car keys and house keys were on two separate rings that evening is not all that interesting, so I'll spare you the details. But the clock was ticking, and there we were, unsure of how we were going to get into our building, let alone our apartment, bake the enchiladas, shower, and make it back to Eitan's birthday dinner on time. Finding our keys was also, ideally, a part of the plan.
We buzzed up to our neighbor Varina, and she let us in. I did such a good job, dear readers, of keeping my cool. I said not a word, rolled not an eyeball, and even smiled a little on our elevator ride up. (Though, I must admit, when Eli tried to give me a quick squeeze between the third and fourth floors, I quietly explained, "I'm not mad, but I don't want to hug you.") At Varina's place, Eli called Eitan and Julia, confirmed that they had our house keys, and sped off to retrieve them. Without missing a beat, I turned to Varina and shamelessly asked if I might shower. Varina extricated her cat from the tub, handed me a towel and, classy shower-lender that she is, even offered me a glass of wine. Good friends and neighbors are the best consolation at key-less times like these.
I leapt from the shower just as the front door of our apartment, one floor below, slammed shut. Still dripping, I hurriedly waved good-bye to Varina, flew down the stairs, and found Eli sliding the enchiladas into the oven. We arrived at Eitan and Julia's exactly 45-minutes late - not bad, all things considered.
Julia and Eitan were waiting for us, as were our friends Jonathan and Hila. When the six of us get together, hilarity always ensues. I mean, everyone-talking-at-once, howling-with-laughter hilarity. Last Friday night was no exception. Hila's account of a questionably sordid watch seller had us giggling in no time, especially the part about how, in a tense phone conversation with the perpetrator, she referred to Eli - my software developer husband - as her lawyer. From there, we moved on to crude hand gestures, enchilada sauce on the carpet, and some good old-fashioned marveling at our friendship and the luck that brought us together.
Finally, it was show time.
Eitan, despite it being his birthday, insisted that I do the honors. Smiling dopily, I cut the first slice. From the outside, the cake looked like a hulking puff of white, a few sliced strawberries perched almost comically atop the airy whipped cream. But the inside (oh the inside!) was an entirely different story. Four-layers, three pounds of strawberries, and a double recipe of custard different, to be exact. It was the most unbeautiful beautiful thing I have ever seen.
I ask you, has ugly ever looked so good?
I had worried that this cake would be cloyingly sweet, or that somehow or other the combination of cake, custard, berries, and cream would fall short. I need not have been concerned. Quieting the six of us is no easy task, but this cake left us in bliss-induced silence for at least a few gaping seconds. Then came the moaning, ("Ohhh... delicious...") the groaning, ("This cake is so rich!") and the scraping of the plates. Even Eli finished his slice, which is saying a lot. Jonathan decided against a second piece, but then went ahead and ate one anyway. There was finger licking, people. I was in heaven.
And, most importantly, Eitan got his cake, and ate it too. Happy birthday, friend.
Strawberry Custard Cassata Cake, or, Cleveland Cassata
Adapted from the Strawberry Chiffon Shortcake at Smitten Kitchen, and the Strawberry Cream Cake published in the June 1997 issue of Gourmet.
When Eitan first rattled off his list of ideal birthday cake qualities - cool, moist, custardy, and chock full of strawberries - a cake from my childhood in Cleveland immediately came to mind. Cassata cake. I began my research with a search for cassata cake recipes, but one after another they called for ricotta cheese instead of custard between the cake and strawberry layers. I was baffled. It was surely custard in the cakes that I remembered.
With a little more digging, I found that, while the majority of cassata cakes are indeed made with ricotta, Corbo's bakery in Cleveland has long produced a custard and strawberry cassata. Their Sicilian family recipe traces back 100 years. Apparently, this cake got the attention of Chef Mario Batali who, according to this site, said, "Corbo's Bakery has the best cassata I have tried in the USA." Other bakeries and supermarkets in the Cleveland area took their cues from Corbo's and made their cassatas with custard, too. To reproduce this Cleveland classic, I grabbed the cake from one recipe, the custard from another, and did my best to piece together a cassata the way I remember it.
Yes, this cake is a bit of a project in that it involves several components and takes some time to put together. But difficult it is not. To keep things manageable, you can make the custard and the cake the night before - it's best to refrigerate the cake before splitting the layers, anyway, to decrease the risk of breakage - and then just split the layers, macerate the berries, whip the cream, and assemble the next morning.
For the cake layers:
2 1/4 c. cake flour
1 1/4 and 1/4 cups sugar, divided
1 T. baking powder
1 t. salt
3/4 c. cold water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 t. lemon zest
1 t. vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
8 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 t. cream of tartar
For the custard:
6 large egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
2 c. half and half
3 T. cornstarch
For the macerated strawberries:
3 lb. strawberries
2 T. sugar
For the whipped cream:
2 c. chilled heavy cream
1 T. sugar
Make the custard: (you can do this step the night before)
Whisk together all of the custard ingredients in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. Turn down the heat so that the mixture just simmers, and whisk until thick, 1-2 minutes. (The key words here are whisk constantly. The custard will tell you in no uncertain terms when it is done. It's like magic. One moment you can comfortably whisk your way through the liquid, and the next it is undeniably a thick custard. Cornstarch is neat like that.) Transfer the custard to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a round of wax paper, and cool. Then, chill custard, covered, for at least 3 hours, or up to 2 days.
Bake the cakes: (you can also do this step the night before)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with lightly oiled (I use cooking spray) parchment paper . Otherwise, leave the pans ungreased.
Sift together the flour, 1 1/4 c. sugar, baking powder, and salt twice into a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, use an electric hand mixer on high speed to beat together the yolks, water, oil, zest, and vanilla until smooth. Stir into the flour mixture.
In another large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 c. sugar, and beat on high until the peaks are stiff but not dry.
Using a rubber spatula (and a very light touch), fold about a quarter of the fluffy egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then fold in the remaining whites. Be very gentle. The goal here is to incorporate the egg whites without allowing them to deflate significantly. It is all of the air that has been whipped into the egg whites that will make for tall and light cake layers. As soon as the egg whites are no longer visible, stop folding.
Scrape the batter into the two prepared pans and spread evenly. (Here is a trick for making sure you have poured an equal amount of batter into each pan: Grab two toothpicks and stick one into the center of each batter-filled pan. Then, pull them out and see if the amounts of batter on the picks line up.) Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
For the next step, and for the splitting, wax paper is your friend. Any surface that carries a cake layer, I line with wax paper for easier transfer.
Allow the cakes to cool in their pans on a cooling rack for at least an hour. When completely cool, run a knife around the sides to release the cakes, cover each pan with a wax paper-lined plate, and flip. Gently lift the pans off of the cakes, and carefully peel back the pieces of parchment, taking care not to take the very tops of the cake with you. (I did end up pulling off a teeny tiny bit of the top of one layer, but it didn't matter, since the cake would ultimately be covered in whipped cream.)
Wrap the two cakes in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least three hours, or overnight.
Meanwhile, prepare the strawberries:
Slice the strawberries thinly (but not too thinly - you want the slices thick enough so that you can really taste and feel the berries even once they are smothered by custard, cake, and whipped cream!), and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with the 2T. sugar, and stir. Allow the strawberries to macerate for 1 hour. Their juices will release and pool at the bottom of the bowl. Every so often, give them a stir. Strain the berries, reserving the released juices.
When the cakes are thoroughly chilled, and thus a little sturdier, it's time to split them in two. Using a long serrated bread knife, carefully saw each layer in half. Place each layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet or plate.
Whip the cream:
Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff.
Assemble the cake!
(I experimented with my layering technique: custard alone between the first and second layers, strawberries alone between the second and third layers, and strawberries and custard between the third an fourth layers. In the future, I'll put strawberries and custard between every layer.)
Place one cake layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet. Brush the top of the layer with 1/3 of the reserved strawberry juice. Cover with a layer of strawberries, and then with a layer of custard. Top with the next layer of the cake, and repeat: strawberry juice, strawberries, custard, cake layer. And again.
Using a spatula, cover the entire cake with whipped cream. Top with either leftover macerated strawberries, or a few "raw" strawberries. (Next time, I'll go with the latter.)
Chill the cake for at least 8 hours before serving, so that the cake has time to absorb the strawberry juices. Bring to cool room temperature before serving.
(To transfer the cake from the baking sheet to a cake stand, use the wax paper to gently scooch the cake from one surface to the other, then tear away the visible wax paper.)